Some of the once-futuristic devices from Star Trek now seem quaint (our cellphones, for example, are already much smaller than the show’s communicators). Recently, another device has started to become available for the average person: the replicator.
The MakerBot Replicator (yes, that’s its real name) is a 3-D printer that can make small objects of any shape. Industrial 3-D printers have been around for a while, but the Replicator is one of the first specifically designed for home use. It sells for less than $2,000 and can be connected to nearly any home computer just like a regular printer. For now, the Replicator can only make plastic objects, and only in one or two colors at a time, but the technology is evolving and future models will certainly be able to use other materials.
When 3-D printers become mainstream they will undoubtedly change the way we think about objects, just as regular printers have changed the way we interact with paper. Today it seems silly to have someone mail you a form when it’s easier to download and print a PDF instead. In the future, it may seem equally silly to go out for a car part or kitchen utensil instead of downloading a model and printing your own. Of course, this also means people will be able to download and copy physical objects from file-sharing sites just like they currently download music and movies, which will open up new frontiers of potential copyright (and patent) violations.
Some small businesses already use 3-D printers, such as local site Owl Posse (OwlPosse.com), which makes 3-D printed metal jewelry. Owl Posse creates prototypes in plastic, then sends the models out to be printed in metal for the final products.
Printers that can make metal objects are still too expensive for home use, but some home printers can already replicate items using more than just plastic. A few inexpensive printers can reproduce soft foods (think frosting or chocolate), and an experimental 3-D printer at Cornell University is even able to adjust the food’s ingredients and texture while it prints.
So the day when we can tell our computer what we want to eat and have it made for us may soon be possible—just like on Star Trek.